People are under enormous stress right now. We know well that the stressors we are living with are manifesting in behavioral-health challenges and crises. The increasing rate of suicidality for young people or the heightening rate of depression for U.S. adults are just two examples.
The implementation of the Washington Legislature’s historical behavioral-health bills and police-accountability measures is just beginning. Many of these bills set the stage for long-term, critically needed structural change in our state, particularly at the intersection of behavioral health and the legal system.
Last Sunday, House Bill 1310 went into effect. But, even before it was effective, some law enforcement agencies have responded in ways that have caused serious implications for people experiencing a behavioral-health crisis.
HB 1310 requires peace officers to use reasonable care when exercising use of force and to use appropriate de-escalation strategies when possible.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Washington wholeheartedly supports de-escalation strategies — that is, approaches intended to avoid the use of force. However, the organization did not take a position on HB 1310 because, although the bill prioritizes de-escalation, it still allows for use of force against someone experiencing a behavioral-health crisis.
In the time since the bill’s passage, there have been multiple news reports describing law enforcement’s sudden hands-off approach to taking calls for people experiencing a behavioral-health crisis. NAMI Washington has received complaints and reports from people seeking care who have been met with police refusing to get someone to treatment when, under current law, a law enforcement officer is often the only party legally permitted to safely facilitate that process.
This development is ironic and unconscionable. Law enforcement officials’ response to implementing HB 1310 is overwhelmingly refusal to take calls for behavioral-health crises based on the premise that they believe they cannot engage due to this new law. The recent report by the ACLU and Disability Rights Washington emphasizes that HB 1310 limits law enforcement’s use of force but does not limit their ability to get someone to treatment in a behavioral-health crisis.
Why wasn’t the first step in many law enforcement responses to scale up or invest in de-escalation approaches? Why, instead, has there been this refusal to engage behavioral health crisis calls?
In our state, there are numerous tools law enforcement has for de-escalation strategies. Washington state offers Crisis Intervention Team Training, mandated for all law enforcement. Just recently, Spokane Police Department hosted a CIT training to help officers practice de-escalation strategies. Some of our state’s police departments use strategies in which mental-health professionals and law enforcement work together to respond to a crisis — also known as a co-responder model. The North Sound Response Awareness, De-escalation And Referral (RADAR) Program is just one example that already implements de-escalation efforts with a person who is identified to have a behavioral-health challenge. And implementation of such co-responder models have proven to be cost-saving for police departments.
Instead of utilizing this toolbox, many agencies have chosen not to respond appropriately to behavioral-health calls as is permitted under existing law. Even if HB 1310 limited law enforcement response to behavioral-health crises (which, again, it does not), law enforcement officials have prematurely chosen to act in ways that prevent people from getting to treatment. Instead, that causes harm to people in crisis.
We look forward to the day when we have a dedicated system for behavioral-health crisis response. Lawmakers also recently passed HB 1477, which creates the framework for the 988 crisis number as an alternative to calling 911 for behavioral-health crises and suicide prevention so that crisis response would not fall largely on law enforcement. This will have a profound impact on behavioral-health crisis interventions. But until that day, law enforcement shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose what crisis is worthy of their attention.